Tips for Effective Meetings with Your Board: Lessons from a First-Time CEO

700 436 David DeWolf

I’ve been fortunate to learn about running effective meetings from seasoned and experienced executives.

Our board’s chair has run three public companies and three venture-backed companies. Our audit committee chair was the CFO of one of the most successful IPOs of the 2000 tech bubble. Another board member has built and sold numerous businesses and sat on numerous boards (both public and private) over the past five decades. Our newest board member is a partner of our private equity firm and is continuously working with CEOs at the board level.

While each of our board members has a bit of a different perspective, all of them have taught me a great deal about running an effective board meeting. Here are the techniques I’ve learned.

Prepare yourself and your team.

As CEO, it’s important that you are managing your business, not the board, but that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t prepare. We usually prepare a ~75 page deck (which includes handouts). This deck walks the board members through our financial results, a “state of the union,” and the strategic discussions we want to have. While most of the data is readily available, the act of discussing what will be in it and pulling it together helps the team prepare for the meeting.

Prepare your board.

We send our board deck out 3-4 days in advance of the board meeting. This gives the board members enough time to prepare but also ensures that the information is timely. An engaged board member will review the materials before they arrive so that they are prepared. Many will even send questions before the meeting itself. I also periodically touch base with various board members to ensure they have the materials, see if they have questions, and give us an opportunity to discuss anything that may be surprising.

Remember, this is an event, not a way of life for your board.

It’s often easy to forget that your board members don’t live and breathe your company like you and your team do. Remember that this is an event for them, so always try to provide context, even if it seems repetitive. Another way to provide this context is to continually and consistently communicate with the board. At 3Pillar we send out a monthly report and host a conference call in between our quarterly meetings. In addition, I touch base with our board members individually on a periodic basis. This helps to keep consistency and the board up to speed.

Be a board member.

Remember that as CEO, you are (most likely) also a board member. This is your opportunity to step back, see the big picture, and evaluate the company’s performance. Have your Sr. Executive team present the “meat” of the board meeting. Facilitate the meeting but give your team the opportunity to shine. This can be a great motivator and professional development tool, as well as providing you the opportunity to look from the outside in and provide true board-level participation.

Start with the financial context.

I know several CEOs and board members that prefer to start with a “state of the union” or CEO update, but I find it helpful to start with the financial context. By providing the results, board members are able to map all discussions back to the first discussion you had. Otherwise, you’ll find that your board may start jumping ahead and asking about the financial impact of certain decisions during the preceding discussions.

Map everything back to your strategic objectives.

It’s important that you keep your board meetings at a strategic level, not a tactical one. To that end, map everything you discuss back to your strategic objectives. What is your vision and how do you plan to get there? What are the KPIs that give you an indication of how you’re performing? If everything consistently flows from your strategy, then your board meeting will stay on track.

Focus the meeting on strategic dialog, not results.

The board needs and wants to see results, but, the primary forum for that communication is the financials that you provide. Let the board preview your deck and digest the financials. Walk them through highlights and then move on. To get the most out of your board, you need to focus on soliciting their input into forward-looking and strategic dialogue. Challenge your board to help you think through complex items.

By following these guidelines you should have a recipe for board meeting success. Productive board meetings can be incredibly valuable. Unproductive board meetings are the opposite – not just a waste of time, but they can often put you back and behind where you started. Take the time you need to be prepared so that you can make the most of your time with your trusted advisors.